“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”–George Orwell, 1984.
“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” –George Orwell, 1984.
“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” –George Orwell, 1984.
In their effort to remake America, progressives have embraced the authoritarian measures described in George Orwell’s cautionary dystopian novel 1984, including rewriting history and changing language to prevent the expression of contrary views.
Revisionist history leaves us vulnerable to failed ideas. More perniciously, corrupting language and the norms of discourse first deprives us of the ability to express nuance, and then the ability to form or understand those distinctions. That is the purpose of the redefinitions and restrictions on open debate in progressive lexicon.
Orwell was a socialist. When he wrote 1984 (published in 1949), his principal apprehension was a resurgence of Nazi totalitarianism, though he also recognized the dangers posed by Stalin’s domination of Russia and Eastern Europe and the rise of other dictatorships. Orwell understood the threat to freedom in a technologically advanced society with a preternatural clarity. 1984 thus stands as the most inciteful explication ever published of how suppressing and manipulating history, language, and facts is indispensable to authoritarian rule.
I believe the United States is experiencing what happens in the initial stages of communism, including: centralizing power in technocrats at the national level; expanding State power at the expense of individual rights; weakening nuclear families, with a focus on transferring decisions about children to the State; increasing violence and crime, led by self-described Marxists; prioritizing socially engineered outcomes for groups above individual rights and merit; suppressing religious and property rights; placing extreme sociopolitical agendas above financial security and prosperity; changing the meaning of words; denying and mischaracterizing facts and history; banning dissenting views with the false label of misinformation; compulsory re-education through so-called anti-racist training; and obligatory public apologies from those who deviate from progressive orthodoxy.
Whether the goal is any variant of national communism or, as Joe Biden seemingly advocates, a new world order that dismantles borders in favor of globalism, the outcome would be dismal. But, if we can understand the insidious tactics, there is still time to change course. Orwell’s 1984 can help explain those tactics with a lucidity second to none.
“It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words,” Orwell wrote. And so, “illegal alien”—the technical term used in federal law for those who enter the United States without proper visas or who overstay their visas—becomes “undocumented alien.” When the elites acquiesced to avoid being painted as racists based on the incoherent premise that the term “illegal alien” implies that brown people are less than whites, the Biden Administration upped the ante. After all, “undocumented” still has a negative connotation. Thus, illegal aliens become mere “non-citizens” who deserve all benefits to which citizens are entitled, including the right to vote.
For nearly 250 years we have sought “equality,” meaning equality of opportunity and equality under the law. The word “equity” has meant fairness, as in a balancing of the equities. In the progressive dictionary, “equity” is, instead, a synonym for quotas. As Ibram X. Kendi candidly concedes, achieving equity requires discrimination against straight, white males, something most Americans find abhorrent. By appropriating the favorable view of “equity,” those unaware of the deception will think something good is happening. Anyone who disagrees is a “racist.”
Critical Race Theory teaches that all whites are guilty of racism as original sin. In their coverage of parents who object to CRT being taught to their children, most journalists fall into two groups: those who deny CRT exists, and those who mischaracterize CRT as merely teaching about racism. Most parents support teaching about the evils of racism and its ugly role in American history. What they oppose is teaching that all whites are irredeemably evil, all blacks are victims, and racism is, and has always been, America’s core principle. These parents also are derided as racists.
And yet, contrary to the assertion that CRT is not being taught in K-12 schools, based principally on the semantic refusal to concede that what is being taught is CRT, a National Association of Scholars survey found that numerous states, including California, Oregon, and Virginia, require their K-12 curricula include elements of anti-racism, CRT, and social justice. Other states have established commissions to develop social justice curricula.
The nation’s largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, has pledged to teach CRT throughout the nation and has promised to “provide an already-created, in-depth, study that critiques empire, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism, and other forms of power and oppression at the intersections of our society.” The union also committed to “oppose attempts to ban critical race theory and/or The 1619 Project.” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, America’s other major teachers’ union, agrees.
According to Kendi and other luminaries of the Left, if a person fails to embrace Woke dogma and become an “anti-racist,” he is a racist. Let’s unpack that: An anti-racist is a person who believes in quotas that dole out society’s benefits primarily on the basis of skin color, gender, and gender identity; while a racist is a person who believes in looking past color and gender to provide equality of opportunity for all people. Up is down and down is up.
Progressives also now insist that whites cannot be the victims of racism, because only members of marginalized minorities can be victims. My 1974 Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines racism as a “belief that some races are by nature superior to others,” and my 1978 New Heritage Dictionary, as “the notion that one’s own ethnic stock is superior.” However, if you look up “racism” in Microsoft Word (which now includes an “inclusiveness” feature in spellcheck), the definition specifies that the prejudice is typically directed at a group that is “a minority or marginalized.” Dictionary.com goes further, explaining that racism also is called “institutional racism” and that it “favors members of the dominant racial or ethnic group . . . while discriminating against or harming members of other groups, ultimately serving to preserve the social status, economic advantage, or political power of the dominant group.”
The wokesphere then goes the final step, claiming that racism against whites cannot exist because whites control the power structure and racism requires both prejudice and power (see here, here, here and here).
“Infrastructure” has always meant roads, buildings, bridges, and the like. It is reasonable to now include telecommunications and the internet. But when progressives expanded the definition to include paid leave, childcare, and caregiving, most in the media accepted that definition. When progressives falsely described the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan as an emergency Covid stimulus plan—even though 90% of the plan had nothing to do with Covid, and most expenditures were budgeted for long after the emergency was expected to end—most in the media referred to the bill as Covid relief, thus defining the terms of the debate.
There are only two biological genders. Invasive operations and hormone therapy may permit an individual to appear or behave as the other gender, but they do not change one’s DNA. Despite the AP’s adoption in 2015 of “they” as a singular pronoun, an individual has never been a “they,” save for arrogant royals who use the self-referential “we,” or in certain possessive references. Otherwise, “they” and “them” refer to more than one individual.
Just 0.6% of Americans identify as transgender, though others may be gender “fluid.” It is one thing to honor individual choice in names, but it is another to create grammatical ambiguity. Pronouns such as “ze” or “ve” are less troubling. While multiple idiosyncratic pronouns are a burden and vague, there is at least no grammatical confusion. Only “he” and “she” are fixed by genetic markers.
Today, professors must sue to retain the right to address women as women and men as men. Columbia University has threatened to terminate any employee who does not bow to the fiction that there are multiple genders. Under that logic, if an individual identifies as a giraffe, we should accept that it is a giraffe. The Biden Administration’s decision in October to allow an “x” to be used as a gender on a passport is silly and dangerous. Imagine the Interpol Red Notice alerting all police forces to lookout for X. Placing control of grammar and law enforcement in the hands of the very few does not serve the needs of the many. It is one thing to protect transgender people from loss of jobs or housing. It is another thing entirely to impair language and comprehension to pander to a fiction advocated by a small percentage of a miniscule minority, joined only by those who wish to advance their agenda to end capitalism, religion, and the nuclear family.
Progressive dogma is either so strong, or opposing it so terrifying, that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who Biden nominated to the Supreme Court to fulfill his promise to appoint a “black woman,” testified during her confirmation hearing that she is unable to define “woman.”
Leading institutions, including government agencies, professional organizations, and universities, proclaim that our language is replete with hidden racism, genderism, and other isms and must be cleansed with a new vocabulary that replaces apolitical words with ideologically laden phrases.
For example, the American Medical Association’s new 55-page Guide to Language provides the Marxist rationale for its Organizational Strategic Plan by noting that “it is common that discussions in the field of equity begin with the recognition that our current state was built on the land and labors of others in ways that violated the fundamental principles of equity.” The Guide then explains: “The land known as the Americas was not discovered; it was conquered and appropriated. This violent acquisition and genocide perpetuated by European settlers followed by centuries of ill-informed and harmful federal policy (e.g., boarding schools, urban relocation) by the US caused the destruction of many Indigenous peoples’ culture and way of life.”
Among the words that trouble the AMA are “disadvantaged,” “equality,” and “disparities.” The politically acceptable terms are “historically and intentionally excluded,” “equity” and “inequities.” Similarly, “ex-con” or “felon” is to be replaced with “returning citizen” or “persons with a history of incarceration,” and “fairness” with “social justice.”
The media and other progressives described riots that burned down city-centers, and caused billions of dollars of damage and at least two dozen deaths, as “peaceful protests.” We are told that referring to the violent ransacking of stores as “looting” is racist. The purported logic behind the latest effort to eradicate our common understanding of widespread smashing and grabbing is that once blacks are disproportionately involved in the commission of a particular category of crime, any mention of that crime is ineluctably linked to blacks. In reality, this effort is likely driven by the recognition that if we can’t easily describe looting as looting, it will be more difficult to write or talk about looting, or to enforce related laws. That objective is consistent with the position taken by BLM activists and other progressives that looting is a non-violent or even victimless crime because stores have insurance.
Contrary to the established definition of “court-packing” as the appointment of more than nine Justices in order to change the Court’s direction, progressives asserted that merely selecting Justices for open seats based on their political leanings constituted court-packing. Many in the media endorsed this view, and even dictionary.com changed its definition of court packing to “the practice of changing the number or composition of judges on a court, making it more favorable to particular goals or ideologies, and typically involving an increase in the number of seats on the court.” Here, “typically” supplants “always,” which is the sine qua non of court-packing.
For months, the Biden Administration sought plaudits for advancing an audacious social spending plan because it exceeded $3.5 billion. When opposition grew, the Administration reversed course, declaring that its plan had “zero cost” because it would purportedly be funded with additional tax revenue. Disregarding the math as to the real cost or projected revenues (requiring correct math is racist), the definitions of “increase” and “spending” have never depended on the sources of funding. Yet, despite eons of consistency in the definitions of “increase” and “spend,” most of the media parroted the Democrat arguments. If discussion of the largest proposed budget increase in American history can be muddied by creating ambiguity about the meanings of everyday words, then opponents can’t be understood.
After the November 2021 elections, as Americans finally began to reject Woke-speak and the progressive agenda, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez informed us that “woke” is a term used only by old people, and she was immediately one-upped by a Slate writer who tweeted that woke is a “racial slur.” Like a retreating army that blows up the bridges they built only weeks earlier, progressives are now gunning to make “woke” an obsolete and toxic term. If it is impermissible to describe woke behavior using the label its advocates coined and embraced until just moments ago, then its opponents can’t effectively communicate their views.
“The keyword here is blackwhite. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. Doublethink is basically the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”– George Orwell, 1984.
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”– George Orwell, 1984.
“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”– George Orwell, 1984.
August 2019 was a turning point in the progressive effort to rewrite American history and values. That month, Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracistaccused all whites of being racists and advocated discrimination against whites as the remedy.Kendi opined: “The use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade Black minds and legally exclude Black bodies….The acceptance of an academic-achievement gap is just the latest method of reinforcing the oldest racist idea: Black intellectual inferiority.” These themes recurin the rationales provided for dismantling testing, curricula, and graduation requirements. If America cannot measure differences, then there must not be any differences.
“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”– George Orwell, 1984.
In the same month Kendi’s book was published, the New York Times announced the far more insidious 1619 Project, which rewrites American history to teach that America’s true founding was in 1619 when Virginians allegedly brought slaves to America, and that the American Revolution, Civil War, and the other major events in American history were motivated by white supremacy. Led by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project “aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States' national narrative.”The 1619 Project combines outright falsehoods with farfetched conclusions to delegitimize America’s underpinnings.
Among many other examples:
- As National Association of Scholars president Peter W. Wood has documented, the individuals brought to Virginia in 1620 were indentured servants, not slaves. All were freed within a few years and then enjoyed full citizenship rights.
- The 1619 Project uses the likelihood that a small number of Virginians feared that a recent British court decision might one day be used to limit slavery in Virginia to assert that the Continental Congress voted for independence to perpetuate slavery. There is no evidence that even one delegate voted on that basis or had instructions from his colony to do so.
- Strikingly, the Northwest Ordinance, passed by the Continental Congress in 1787 and repassed as the first organic law of the United States in 1789, prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory.
In response to overwhelming criticism of its falsehoods, Hannah-Jones tweeted that the 1619 Project “does not argue that 1619 is our true founding,” blithely ignoring multiple interviews in which she had claimed the contrary. She later tweeted: “The crazy thing is, the 1619 Project is using history and reporting to make an argument. It never pretended to be a history.” She also admitted that the 1619 Project is merely a metaphor for the Left’s emotional perspective on America.
Yet the homepage for the 1619 Project still falsely asserts that it is “truth,” and more than 4,500 schools teach the 1619 Project as a key part of their American history curriculum. In November 2021, the New York Times published an expanded book version of the 1619 Project, together with an aggressive 8,600 word defense from its unrepentant editor, Jake Silverstein.
America’s history has been erased and defaced. Statues of former presidents have been pulled down, including Thomas Jefferson, who was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington, who won the Revolutionary War and eschewed royalty to become America’s first president, Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves, and Theodore Roosevelt, who won a Nobel Peace Prize, protected our food supply, introduced the first worker’s compensation laws, greatly expanded our national parks, and created the US Forest Service (all goals of the left). Today’s standards are misapplied to the actions of leaders from 100 or 200 years ago. With smug virtue-signaling, the revolutionary American principles that have achieved liberty and security for so many people are turned to dust.
Children are taught to despise who they are and to reject their heritage as Americans. They are taught, and our movies and television programs confirm, that America was founded on racism and has lived a lie. Thanksgiving is a tool of white supremacy used to oppress blacks. Jingle Bells is racist. There is nothing or little in our country worthy of our pride. For more than 400 years, America has been a nation of oppressors. Social, economic, and climate justice, we are told, will require radical change.
“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”– George Orwell, 1984.
From rewriting the accreditation rules for nearly all private K-12 schools in the United States to require each trustee pledge obeisance to “equity and justice,” requiring public K-12 schools teach CRT, demanding that college, graduate, law and medical school admissions, promotions and tenure decisions be based on racial balancing, to demanding that math teachers stop requiring the right answers or method, 400 years of progress toward a color-blind society is reversed and a quest for the brightest and the best, and all the advancements that come with that quest are destroyed, at least for a generation.
“Nazi theory, indeed, specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists. … The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future, but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’—well, it never happened. If he says that ‘two and two are five’—well, two and two are five.” – George Orwell, in 1943.
As progressives gain power, Americans lose freedom. Under Joe Biden, parents are threatened with terrorist “threat tagging” and visits from the FBI for speaking their minds; the streets of Washington, DC are lined with 25,000 troops; the New York Post and others who accurately describe Hunter Biden’s laptop and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and even panel discussions led by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis that present multiple views about Covid-19, are banned from social media; those who teach, lecture, or share conservative views are silenced through intimidation, suspension, and termination by social media and their employers; Joe Manchin and Kristin Sinema are savaged by progressives for opposing abandonment of the filibuster and its 200-year tradition of building consensus, because consensus prevents progressives from packing the Supreme Court with ideologically pure justices; and radical changes to our election system are demanded to unconstitutionally federalize elections, eliminate voter ID, and permit non-citizens to vote.
In perfect doublespeak, the academicians, policy-makers, and media insist that all of these authoritarian measures are necessary to ensure freedom.
Progressives present themselves as kind, caring protectors of good. Their verbiage is warm and soothing. The truth is otherwise. Real Clear Investigations found that “[t]he summer 2020 riots resulted in some 15 times more injured police officers, 30 times as many arrests, and estimated damages…up to 1,300 times more costly than those of the Capitol riot. George Floyd rioters…used more sophisticated and dangerous tactics than did the Capitol rioters, and in some cases weapons of greater lethality.”
The left is better at totalitarianism than the right. Nearly 1.8 billion people live in countries that have been ruled by communists for most of the last century, dwarfing the duration and population of fascist regimes. The left also is far more efficient at killing. Hitler was responsible for about 42 million combatant and non-combatant deaths. For Stalin, the estimates range from about 20 million to 60 million, excluding combat deaths. The range for Mao is about 42 million to 70 million.
A hallmark of most conservatives is a belief in restraint. Generally, conservatives don’t attack with the ruthlessness with which progressives savage conservatives. We try to win our arguments with logic and tradition, and we maintain the belief that sacrifice, hard work, and integrity will lift all of us to a better future. Those traits leave conservatives unprepared for the asymmetrical attack from the left.
“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?” –George Orwell, 1984.
Kenin M. Spivak, a lifetime member of the National Association of Scholars, is founder and chairman of SMI Group LLC, an international consulting firm and investment bank. Spivak was chairman of two publishers and of the Editorial Board of the Knowledge Exchange Business Encyclopedia. He regularly contributes to National Review, The American Mind and other publications. He received an A.B., M.B.A., and J.D. from Columbia University.